"The Right Way to Pray" by Heather Folliard
I’ve thought a lot about today’s preview worship service – many of us have. It’s a labor of
love and we want to get it “right.” But what does that mean – right? Does it mean
pleasing to God? Pleasing to us? Does it mean if we do something wrong, judgment
awaits? There’s dangerous ambiguity with the concept of “the right way” to do
something. Which way is, in fact, the right way? Nevertheless, many of us were taught
from a young age that there is a “right way” to pray and it is following the pattern of The
Lord’s Prayer – or the “Our Father,” as it is known in the Catholic tradition.
The Gospel Reading for today includes Jesus’ prayer from which we developed the
Lord’s Prayer. A version of this prayer of Jesus is shared in both Matthew and Luke’s
accounts of the Gospel – they’re quite different. What we have come to pray over the
centuries most closely resembles the prayer Matthew records. Yet, the way Luke
captures Jesus revealing the passion and struggle of prayer is outstanding.
Luke 11: 1-13 The Lord’s Prayer
11 He was praying in a certain place, and after he had finished, one of his disciples said
to him, “Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.” 2 He said to them, “When
you pray, say:
Father, hallowed be your name.
Your kingdom come.
3 Give us each day our daily bread.
4 And forgive us our sins,
for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.
And do not bring us to the time of trial.”
5 And he said to them, “Suppose one of you has a friend, and you go to him at midnight
and say to him, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves of bread; 6 for a friend of mine has arrived,
and I have nothing to set before him.’ 7 And he answers from within, ‘Do not bother me;
the door has already been locked, and my children are with me in bed; I cannot get up
and give you anything.’ 8 I tell you, even though he will not get up and give him anything
because he is his friend, at least because of his persistence he will get up and give him
whatever he needs.
9 “So I say to you, Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the
door will be opened for you. 10 For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who
searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. 11 Is there anyone
among you who, if your child asks for [e] a fish, will give a snake instead of a fish? 12 Or if
the child asks for an egg, will give a scorpion? 13 If you then, who are evil, know how to
give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy
Spirit to those who ask him!”
In the neonatal critical care center, I sat with a mother of a two-week old boy with Spina
bifida. She sat curled up in her chair just staring at her baby, making eye contact with me
occasionally. She liked the company, and kept asking for me to return each day, but it
took several visits for her to feel like talking. Finally she said, “I feel like I should ask you
to pray for him, but why? Why did this happen to such a sweet innocent baby? What
can happen now? What did I do to make this happen? Why would God answer my
prayers – I’ve dine a lot of bad things in my life? It might make it worse.”
It’s not just her – or people in those heartbreaking and dire circumstances. Prayer is a
struggle. Who are we asking? What are we allowed to ask from God? Who are we to
approach God? Luke gives Jesus’ prayer as a response to the disciples’ questions and
to ours, and it’s anything but a simple solution. Jesus, himself, reveals the complexity of
life and of God and I think that’s why the Church has held this prayer as an example.
This is why it became orthodox.
The problem is how over time it became orthopraxy - Pray this way, to a God who is this
way. Be humble as you approach the Father. And, I find it interesting that so many look
to this prayer as support for a masculine God – literally a “Father,” but miss the literal
application of bread and debt.
For many who have had a poor relationship with their fathers this is far from the way they
would want to pray. Geoffrey Wainwright says the solution to this is looking at the
determinative end of the analogy – that it is God who typifies the role of Father. 1 He’s
right – but even making God the determinative – the parental nomenclature can still be
limiting to us. I’m not sure Jesus meant to limit God as much as he was signifying a
direct approach to God.
Luke shows Jesus having a simple and direct conversation. It is a spare, abridged
version without the typical flourishes we add in order to make a demand sound more like
a polite request. He begins with an unadorned address, “Father.” Then he adds an
Eschatological pronouncement, “Your Kingdom Come.” Then he makes three petitions,
“give bread every day, forgive our sins as we forgive debt, and don’t bring us to a time of
This reminds me of our Co-Pastor John’s five sentence email policy. There’s not too
much body text so everything is clear and will be read. The point gets across. If further
conversation is necessary that can be done in a more suitable format such as personal
conversation or a phone call. The point of the email is a direct and clear communication.
What if we – so accustomed to polished, careful, self-protective address to God – prayed
in this bold, no frills style? What if the bread we asked for was real food that we got
hungry for again every single day? What kind of relationship with what kind of God would
I think it would make us aware of need – our need and the needs of others. Needs that
are met, and those that are unmet. It would make us aware of the complexities of life.
Diana Butler Bass says that prayer makes us aware of the natural order of things – the
things we don’t normally recognize. Prayer points us to a consciousness we should all
Richard Rohr says that God is consciousness itself. To be clear, he’s not limiting God to
a state of mind. He’s capturing the all-knowing omniscience of God. If we are conscious
– not merely awake but entering into a prayerful level of consciousness, we are in union
Jesus, in his traditional way, follows up his direct teaching with a parable about
consciousness – it’s about asking and hearing. A man asking for bread and his friend
hearing but on an unconscious level. With persistence (lots of knocking on the door, and
probably some yelling into the home), the friend finally becomes aware. Often we need
consciousness stirred up in us. We’re not alone. On several occasions Jesus’ first
response was “no” until his consciousness was piqued. When his mother asked him to
turn water into wine so that the wedding host would not be embarrassed, Jesus said it
was not yet time. But in her words to him or that motherly stare we can give, Jesus
becomes aware of the need and performs what many call his first miracle. (John 2).
To the Syrophoenician woman begging for healing for her daughter his cultural instinct
was to respond negatively – you’re not part of my people. But she didn’t back down.
Their eyes locked and she firmly said, “Lord!” She stirred his consciousness, and in his
humanity he recognized her humanity – her need. This is being truly conscious, and
through it he offered healing. (Mark 7).
Rohr goes onto say that if we are conscious – in union with God – we will offer a loving
response. Conversely – sin is staying in a state of unconsciousness. Sin is ignoring the
universal communion of all things. It’s doing that which tears down when you have the
ability to do something constructive, something helpful and loving.
Our nation's eyes were opened to just such an occasion in Wyoming Valley, PA when the
school district threatened to remove children from their homes and place them into foster
care because of their lunch debt. (Won’t talk about families having to go into debt to buy
lunch at school, now but it’s definitely something that warrants discussion/action). When
several donors came forward to pay off that debt the school system declined their offer.
Many people from the town went on record affirming the school’s decision because, as
they said, “it would be unfair for those who work hard and do right to be required to pay
while these other families essentially get a ‘free lunch.’” They don’t want debt forgiven.
They want people punished.
Perhaps it’s easier to miss the direct connection with the work and words of Jesus
because we have altered the words of our Lord’s prayer to better fit our understanding:
Forgive our sins or trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. In a sense
we’ve made the prayer more spiritual and taken the humanity right out of Jesus’ teaching.
Forgiving debt is the actual practice of which Jesus speaks. With those words he
recognizes the human struggle and the significance of liberation now. The more aware
we become – the more conscious we are of our own needs and the needs of others the
better we understand our Lord’s prayer. And, the better we understand Jesus’ prayer,
the more conscious we are – the more willing we are to do the Lord’s work.
Last Tuesday, just down the road in Raleigh, an older white woman confronted to
younger women of color. She said they were being rude and that warranted her use of a
racial slur. Of course the incident has, as we say, “gone viral.” While some are
sympathetic to her, most remarks I’ve seen speak out against her blatant racism. The
news coverage has stirred up the public consciousness, and petitions against racism.
But at that restaurant, in the moment, no one stood up to confront those evil words. No
one aligned themselves with the women who were verbally attacked.
In those moments between social unconsciousness and consciousness, people expect
things to get fixed without doing the work. This is the “thoughts and prayers” crowd
hoping God will miraculously fix things without involving us.
People of color and marginalized folk have been knocking, asking, and seeking forever
while others sit in the comfort of their room unwilling to get out of their cozy bed. Jesus
says that asking and seeking and knocking with shameless persistence is what awakens
consciousness. It shouldn’t have to be that way, but until we – God’s people - are fully
conscious – it is.
A mentor of mine once suggested that we are not “pray-ers.” He said, we’re prayers.
Our very being, in our daily lives – asking and answering – we are prayers. Then to pray
without ceasing, as St. Paul recommends, means never ignoring this responsibility – Be
ever conscious, asking and answering in Jesus’ Name. – Amen.
G. Wainwright, October 1, 2009. Lesslie Newbigin and Missiology. Duke University Divinity
Cynthia Briggs Kittredge, “Reflections on the Lectionary.” The Christian Century. July17,
The Liturgists Podcast. “Prayer.” July 11, 2019.